Originally Published in the Times Villager, November 2014

“I wish I could tell my dad to lighten up.”

“My mom is so stressed and angry all the time. I miss her.”

“We used to be best friends, now she doesn’t have time for me.”

“My dad buys me stuff. I don’t want stuff. I want him.”

These quotes from the rekenekt graffiti wall are a good reminder that our kids need us to lighten up a little and spend some time having fun. Life is busy. I get it. But have you ever noticed how the stresses of everyday life creep in to consume our thoughts and time, leaving relationships with our children lower on the priority list? Even our well-meaning attempts to relate to them are often lost in the frantic nature of our lifestyle.

I am self-employed and work out of a corner of our dining room. When my youngest son was about five, he asked me if I loved my computer more than I loved him. Shocked at his question, I spun around in my office chair and looked into his eyes. “Why would you think that son?” I asked, knowing full well I was about to hear something I would rather not.

“You spend more time staring into its face than you do mine,” came his tearful reply.

I will never forget that moment. Burned into my heart was the realization that his perception of me as his mother was very different than my own. Even though I thought I was doing everything right to show my son I loved him, my efforts fell short. My loving intentions were distorted in his eyes by my over committed schedule and mile-long to-do list. I asked him what he would like to do with me. All he wanted to do was to play a simple game of checkers.

Checkers? I felt very small in my feeble attempt to make things right.

In seminars for mothers and daughters, I lead a lot of role-playing and connection activities. At the beginning of the event, I often see slumped over, despondent teen girls who would rather be anywhere else. I mentally note the eye rolling and obvious disgust from teens ‘forced’ to spend a weekend with Mom. But an amazing thing happens once they are away from peers and the distractions of everyday life. Once both mother and daughter are ‘unplugged’ for 24 hours, eye rolling is replaced with eyes sparkling. Disgust is replaced with joy and angry detached body language is transformed into hand holding and skipping. I once heard a 17-year old girl tell her mom, “Hey, I remember you. I forgot I used to like you!” I love watching relationships come back to life simply by setting aside time to have fun together.

We often forget to take time to have fun with our kids. I talk to students all the time who just want to spend more time with their parents. A study done by Barna Research shows that 78% of teens list their parents as the most influential people in their life. It also reports that 76% of teenagers polled say they would like to spend more time with their parents.

Teens have many different reasons for wanting to spend time with parents. Age, peer groups, and home environment can influence the relationship between parents and teens and will be reflected in what fun time looks like. In casual interviews, I have found that most youth, eleven to fourteen, actually want to spend time with their parents. They get excited about little things like playing baseball or going out for ice cream. Girls in this age group seem more in need of dad time. The girls with the best relationships with their dads talk about consistent fun date nights together.

Twelve to thirteen-year-olds express deeper longing and need for their parents. They say things like, “I need my dad to help me with school stuff,” or, “ I wish my mom would help me sort out my problems.” Junior High is a confusing time and children in this age group often need assurance that they are OK. Spending fun time with your child is a perfect way to get them talking and reassure them with your presence.

Fourteen and fifteen-year-olds are embarrassed to admit they like to be with their parents. Once they are away from friends, they often admit the biggest thing they need is down time with less stress from school and pressures to be perfect. They long for fun, mindless activities that may involve food or shopping! Sharing a hobby or an activity they loved as a child can help ease the pressure.

Older teens and young adults may need parents most of all, although they will never let you know it. A fierce need for independence often wages war against a need for Mom or Dad’s protection from fears of a confusing adult world. Providing fun interactions for older teens will offer them reassurance that you are still available when they need you

No matter your child’s age or condition of your current relationship, setting aside some fun time can be a great way to begin to build stronger, healthier relationships.

Take Five Action Steps

Think about these ideas for some fun times to help you put aside the pressure and demands of life and reconnect with your child.

Remind them of something you used to have fun doing together. Find an old picture to get the conversation going. “I found this old picture and it got me thinking about when we used to…” Listen carefully to your son or daughter’s response. If they start talking, watch for clues. See if you can pick up on what they miss most about spending time with you.

Follow up with an invitation to take a trip down memory lane in real time. Ask if they would join you in a favorite pastime. Fishing, go-carts or just tossing a ball around in the yard may be a good bridge to start having fun together again.

Talk about what you like to do together. Try to find common interests. Books- Go to a bookstore to browse. War memorabilia-visit a museum. Travel-rent a travel movie and cook ethnic food together. When you are together doing something you both enjoy, fun is almost guaranteed.

Schedule a ‘date night’ with your son or daughter. If the first date goes well, schedule another. Take turns planning the activities. Make one-on-one time with your child a consistent priority.

Don’t forget to laugh. Replace serious conversations with light-hearted topics. Tell a joke or watch a funny movie. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine of all.